Communication problems in engineering teams

An engineering manager asks Stackexchange for help with his “socially awkward” team and gets skewered by the community. It goes to the heart of managing and leading engineering teams, so let’s dig in.

This lack of social skill creates a few problems from the manager’s point of view:

  • won’t participate in company social events,
  • won’t communicate with other teams,
  • rely too much on tools like Slack to communicate, and
  • not reaching out for details on bug reports.

It seemed like a reasonable point of view and like a set of problems I have lots of personal experience with, especially in an agile world where communication skills are super valuable. The community largely disagreed.

First, they disagreed with the premise that the team lacks social skill. They have good advice for you as a tech lead: before you make a judgment that a team or person “lacks social skill,” consider whether they just have a different communication skillsets or techniques than you do. People who become managers often do so because their communication techniques more closely match traditional business norms, so you might have a blind spot.

Second, always remember that you probably preferred lots of time to concentrate and work when you were in their spot. As a tech lead, you’re starting to move into the world of humans that coordinate and progress by randomly bumping into each other in meetings. As you get used to this, you’re going to forget how important focus time is and why asychronous techniques like Slack and email are highly valued.

Third, remember that, as a leader of an engineering team, your product is that now the team’s effectiveness. They’re there to solve problems creatively, which takes focus, concentration, and a unique kind of coordination — forcing them to socialize in ways that match the company’s techniques but not the team’s preferred methods will undermine the quality of your product.

As one poster pointedly said:

Just because your boss [declared the team ineffective because they’re socially awkward] doesn’t mean the criticisms are valid. You now have an opportunity to back up your team and support their best interests, advocating for them and the way in which they work best. As their manager, that is your job, not parroting whatever your boss (who is even more removed from the developer world) has come up with next.

I know you know all these things, but I thought the thread (which is very long and raises a lot more good points than I did above) was an awesome illustration of how engineering teams need to be protected and nurtured, especially in companies that don’t understand the culture.

That said, I think the posters focused too much on criticizing the premise of the question and didn’t do enough to acknowledge how critical good communication techniques are. But still, it was a valuable discussion!

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